- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Bob Dylan
Together Through Life
Columbia Records

Bob Dylan’s new studio album, “Together Through Life,” appeared without the stampede of advance publicity that often accompanies a new release from a major artist. The low-key release befits this low-key record.

“Together Through Life” plays like a series of love letters to the sundry genres of American music that have informed and sustained Mr. Dylan’s work throughout the decades. Inevitably, too, the songs reflect the way Mr. Dylan’s own work has become bound up with the larger currents of American music.

The blues “Shake Shake Mama” could almost be a cover of a 1950s-era Muddy Waters tune. The bright, accordion-driven track “I Feel a Change Comin’ On” wears its gospel roots proudly, but it also recalls Mr. Dylan’s own much-covered anthem “I Shall Be Released.” Another blues number, “My Wife’s Home Town,” is a straight-up (and credited) cover of the Willie Dixon classic, “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” with new lyrics. In a sense, Mr. Dylan is here re-revisiting the musical paths he traversed in his early career, but without the iconoclastic urgency.

“This Dream of You” is a Tex-Mex ballad that is carried along by the shimmering accordion work of Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, whose accordion adorns “Together Through Life” much the way Scarlet Rivera’s violin does Mr. Dylan’s 1976 album “Desire.” Mr. Hidalgo is an extremely versatile player. On a blues song, he takes over, full of leering insinuation, for a grinding harmonica; on a gospel track, his playing soars like a church organ.

It’s hard to know what to make of the lyrics. Mr. Dylan claims sole credit only for “This Dream of You” and shares credit with former Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter on the remaining nine tracks. There is an abiding grimness at work here that belies the frequently raucous and upbeat musical moods. At the same time, there’s a simplicity of rhyme and a shortage of imagery that feels strangely perfunctory.

The song “Jolene” — not a cover of the great Dolly Parton track — seems to owe its name to the fact that it rhymes with a lot of other words. One would have to thumb back through the Dylan canon to perhaps “Country Pie” to find as simple a formulation.

“Together Through Life” feels of a piece with Mr. Dylan’s recent releases. He is respectful and affectionate toward established musical forms, where once he mined them ruthlessly for his own ends. Since the 1993 release of the haunting folk album “World Gone Wrong,” Mr. Dylan’s work has had a sense of summation about it — as if he’s walking back through the past. For Dylan aficionados, what’s truly fascinating about this journey is the way he encounters himself and his own influence.

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